As I was in CVS today buying massive quantities of half-priced Easter candy (for my 101 students, not for me!), I happened to glance over at the magazines. Usually, I intentionally avert my eyes from the magazines as a sort of spiritual discipline, but maybe I was weakened by all my Easter excesses today and couldn’t avoid a glimpse at the covers. What I saw shocked me. Kate Hudson, topless, on the cover of Glamour (which I am not hyperlinking because I don’t want you to see it, which is the entire point of this post). I turned to the guy checking me out, who was maybe 19.
Me: Can you believe this?
Me: She is topless. This is porn. You have porn in full view of anybody who walks into the store.
Guy: Really? I hadn’t noticed.
Me: Aren’t you offended by this? Aren’t you worried that your eyes are going to fall on this image 1000 times this week as you check people’s purchases? Aren’t you worried that you are slowly going to become desensitized to the grandeur of the female body, that you are going to become one of the many men (and women) who see women’s body as a mere object to be consumed and disposed of at will? Aren’t you worried that slowly and subconsciously, you are going to forget how to love in a way that is fully human?
Guy: Uh . . . Do you have a CVS card?
So maybe I was a bit hard on the guy. It wasn’t his fault that this image was less than a foot from his face all day, and less than a foot of every patron that would visit that counter today. But my concerns are not unreasonable.
Images matter. What we see on a daily basis shapes us, often in ways that float below the level of consciousness. In my dissertation, I explored the way in which women’s body image is powerfully influenced by magazine covers like this one and so many others that portray women as perfectly sculpted, just skinny enough to not look scary but definitely below a healthy weight, and of course, flawless. Body image dissatisfaction climbs after even a few seconds of viewing such images.
In the medieval world, people were fully aware of the power of images. Churches were covered with stain glass and icons depicting the stories of scripture and the feats of the saints. In her book Image as Insight, Margaret Miles explores the way in which the pre-moderns were aware of the power of images and critiques the way in which the people of modernity neglect to appreciate how our character and personalities are shaped by images even before we can rationally and logically analyze the images. In the contemporary period, we tend to think in terms of “mind over matter,” assuming that something will affect us only if we let let it affect us. A topless Kate Hudson is only dangerous if we fixate on it or intentionally misuse it.
On the contrary, Jacques Maritain argues that experience leads to a kind of knowledge that he calls “experimental” or “connatural” knowledge that is foundational in our judgments. Such knowledge is pre-rational and subconscious, meaning that it is a knowledge we possess non-discursively and influences us in ways we may not be aware of. Our judgments about beauty are influenced heavily by our connatural knowledge of beauty, that is, of the images that have shaped us with regards to what it beautiful.
Magazine images like this one on the cover of Glamour lead to a connatural knowledge of the female body and what it should look like and do. Far from being harmless, images like this one shape the way women want to look, and shape what men expect women to do for them.
I encourage you to write into Glamour, protesting the cover and encouraging them to choose images for future issues that do not demean women by portraying them naked, excessively skinny, or overly-enticing. And if you find yourself in CVS this week buying leftover Easter candy, be sure to avert your eyes. Because looking can be dangerous.